Portability Provision of Estate Tax law may be “Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing”

December 23, 2010

The new Estate Tax law may create complications for middle class married couples: The recently enacted Tax Relief Act of 2010 brings back the federal estate tax with a whimper not a bang. But one provision, intended to help married couples, may result in new tax complexities and expense for those of even very modest wealth.

Under the new rules, individuals who die in 2011 or 2012 will have an exemption amount of $5 million dollars (reduced if they made large gifts during lifetime). If their taxable estate does not consume the entire $5 million exemption, the unused portion can be passed on to their surviving spouse. However, the unused exemption amount is available to the surviving spouse only if an election is made and the amount is calculated on a timely filed estate tax return of the deceased spouse. This estate tax return must be filed to pass on the unused exemption even if no return is otherwise required.

In its December 10th technical explanation of the provisions of the law, the Congressional Joint Committee on Taxation gives the following example of how this “portability” provision will work:

“Example 1: Assume that Husband 1 dies in 2011, having made taxable transfers of $3 million and having no taxable estate. An election is made on Husband 1’s estate tax return to permit Wife to use Husband 1’s deceased spousal unused exclusion amount. As of Husband 1’s death, Wife has made no taxable gifts. Thereafter, Wife’s applicable exclusion amount is $7 million (her $5 million basic exclusion amount plus $2 million deceased spousal unused exclusion amount from Husband 1), which she may use for lifetime gifts or for transfers at death.”

In the Joint Committee example, it is pretty obvious that the relatively wealthy surviving spouse should hire a lawyer to prepare a federal estate tax return for her deceased husband. At a 35% tax rate, the unused $2 million dollar exemption could someday be worth $700,000 to her heirs.

But doesn’t this same logic hold true in the situation of a married couple with a much more modest net worth? Who knows what the future holds for the surviving spouse.

Assume that you are the lawyer meeting with a surviving spouse soon after the death of her husband. The deceased had an “I love you” estate plan which leaves everything to his wife. The value of his estate, for federal estate tax purposes, is $400,000. There is no federal (or state) tax and there is no requirement that a federal estate tax return be filed.

But there is a $5 million dollar unused exemption that can be passed on to the surviving spouse — IF your client is willing to go to the hassle and expense of having an estate tax return prepared and filed. As the lawyer, how can you not suggest the filing of estate return to calculate the unused exclusion and elect to pass it on? How can you guarantee that the unused exclusion will not someday be incredibly valuable to your client’s children or other heirs? At 35% tax rate, an unused $5 million exclusion could someday be worth as much as $1.75 million dollars.

Note that the more modest the estate of the deceased spouse, the more potentially valuable the unused exemption.

Also consider that surviving spouses can acquire unanticipated wealth as a result of fluctuating real estate values as an example.

As a lawyer, I don’t want to find myself sitting across the table from my client’s children someday trying to explain why a million dollars in avoidable federal estate taxes is due because mom didn’t file an estate tax return when dad died. I’m not sure I would feel that much better even if I had some kind of a wavier signed by mom.

So, it seems to me that the portability provision in Title III of the new Tax Relief Act may be the proverbial wolf in sheep’s clothing. It may create a lot of additional work for lawyers, and expense for widowed estate administration clients of only modest net worth.

Source: Jeffrey A. Marshall, Certified Elder Law Attorney, 12/19/10.